The last hard ridges
Immediately after the Second World War, the remaining difficult ridges of major peaks were climbed. The last (south) ridge of Aoraki/Mt Cook was climbed in 1948 by Harry Ayres and Mick Sullivan (guides) and Ed Hillary and Ruth Adams (clients).
Shortly after this climb, when the same party attempted Mt La Perouse, Ruth Adams was injured near the summit, and had to be carried on a stretcher virtually over the summit and through deep gorges to the West Coast road. It was the most arduous rescue in New Zealand’s climbing history. The last ridge on Mt Tasman, the Balfour Rib, was climbed in 1959.
The next challenge was to climb the faces. These are the slopes under ridges, which are harder to climb because they are so steep, and are often threatened by falling rock or ice. Face-climbing began before the last ridges were conquered. Notable face climbs of the 1950s included the South Face of Mt Tūtoko (1952), the East Face of Mt Sefton (1953) and the Hooker Face of Aoraki/Mt Cook (1956).
On bended knee
During the first climb of the East Face of Mt Whitcombe, Mike Gill looked down to see Ian Cave using his knees. Phil Houghton wrote later that ‘Mike rebuked him, saying even if he was bone-weary there was no excuse for such bad technique when climbing. Ian looked up with a mystified air, ‘Climbing? Who’s climbing?” he said. “I’m praying.”’ 1
The arrival of climbers from Europe (where face-climbing already had a 20-year history) spurred further activity. In 1960, Eberhard von Terzi and Hans Leitner climbed the East Face of Mt Tasman. They were just beaten to the East Face of Aoraki/Mt Cook by a party of New Zealanders and British immigrants, Don Cowie, Peter Farrell, Lynn Crawford and Vic Walsh.
The ‘great prize’ was the Caroline Face of Aoraki/Mt Cook, climbed in 1970 by Peter Gough and John Glasgow.
Later face climbs
The last great challenge was the South Face of Mt Hicks, first climbed in 1970 by Murray Jones and Graeme Dingle. Face routes on Mt Hicks preoccupied the era’s ‘young gun’ climbers. Bill Denz, at the forefront of this group, made the first ascent of the Balfour Face of Mt Tasman in 1971 with Bryan Pooley.
The direct line routes of the 1980s were given imaginative names: Gates of Steel, and Sodom and Gomorrah on the South Face of Aoraki/Mt Cook, Heaven’s Door on the South Face of Mt Hicks, and The Mists of Avalon on the Balfour Face of Mt Tasman.
The ‘edge’ of climbing then moved to forcing direct lines on such faces as the Balfour Face of Mt Tasman and the South Face of Mt Hicks, and then to solo or winter ascents of the harder routes. Winter ascents were not without precedent. Aoraki/Mt Cook had first been climbed in winter in 1923. But winter climbs of faces became common only in the 1970s.
Faces beyond the central Southern Alps also challenged climbers. John Pascoe had thought the East Face of Whitcombe was ‘likely to remain inviolate’, but it was climbed in 1962.
Later in the 1970s, the best climbers concentrated on winter face-climbing in the Darran Mountains. The 1984 winter ascent of the South Face of Sabre Peak by Bill Denz and Kim Logan was the culmination of this development.